A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Niven's Stairway to Heaven
A weak mind isn't strong enough to hurt itself. Stupidity has saved many a man from going mad - Dr. Reeves
I'm going to say this now because quite simply you cannot do Powell and Pressburger's "A Matter of Life and Death" justice through words alone it is a movie which must be watched and experienced to fully understand why it is so loved by many. What is interesting is that "A Matter of Life and Death" was made as a bit of propaganda, following the war it was decided that encouraging an alliance between Britain and the USA was a good thing and this movie was meant to do that. Yet the propaganda element doesn't really show itself until the end and before that what we get is a quirky, imaginative, amusing, intelligent and highly visual movie which has you looking for an answer to a question which ironically is never posed.
Right from the start of "A Matter of Life and Death" you know you are in for a treat as we are taken for a soiree through the galaxy, a beautifully crafted little trip through the stars and planets before ending up here on Earth and in the stricken plane of Peter Carter (David Niven - The Sea Wolves). Carter is in dire straights, the planes damaged, his parachute shredded his engineer Bob is dead and the rest of the crew have bailed, it is just him talking to June (Kim Hunter) a radio operator sharing his last moments before he jumps as he would rather die falling than be fried. It's dramatic and emotional, with a great sense of British Stiff upper lip and tearful emotion as June feels helpless alone in the control tower.
Cut as colour goes to black and white and we appear to be in the waiting room to heaven with Bob (Robert Coote) waiting for Peter to show up so they can sign in and collect their wings. We witness lots of people show up including entire crews of Americans, pleased to see a Coke machine and amused to find out that no one has rank up in heaven. And at this point you wonder where Peter is, he couldn't have survived a fall from a burning plane. But wait we go back to colour, Peter wakes up on a beach, thinking it is heaven he discover a small boy sun bathing naked and learns that no it's not heaven and then he meets June, cycling past.
Are you intrigued, confused, fascinated because you should be because in the space of 10 minutes we have had drama, emotion, great visuals, humour and so much more all leading you to wonder what the hell is going on. It starts your journey as you look for an answer, but an answer to a question which is never posed. And what is this question which is never posed, well what is real and what isn't because as we follow Peter we learn that he should have died but in the thick fog was lost. In the extra time he has had has fallen in love with June but Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) has been sent down to Earth to take him to the waiting area where Bob awaits.
And so as I said we wonder what is real and what isn't and with June taking Peter to see her friend Dr. Reeves (Roger Livesey - I Know Where I'm Going!) who believes he has a head injury which is leading him to create this false reality with heaven, the conductor and also a trial where he has to plea for an extended life you can be lost by what is going on. And do you know what, because there is no actual question posed there is no definitive answer given, it is up to you to judge whether or not this whole episode has been a figment of Peter's imagination or whether or not he has escaped death and been given an extension because of the love that he and June share.
Now the propaganda element is that we have Peter being British and June being American and when it comes to the appeal much of the evidence against Peter being given an extension comes down to prosecuting lawyer Abraham Farlan saying that Britain and America are so different, have so little in common that a union can and should not exist. But whilst being propaganda it is not forced because it is an aspect of the actual story and the union between June and Peter which makes it all very clever.
But that is not all there is because "A Matter of Life and Death" is a visual treat from beginning to end. There is the simple but effective use that on earth we have vibrant colour but as we shift to heaven it dissolves to black & white providing great contrast. Then there is that simply brilliant soiree through the galaxy which opens the movie which is surpassed when we then get to see the giant, and I do mean giant, escalator which takes Peter up to heaven, one serious stairway to heaven. Throw in quirks such as the boy who is sunbathing naked, the close ups of Dr. Reeves face as he travels by motorbike plus the stunning scene where he uses a Camera Obscura to survey the village. You will never be bored when it comes to the visuality of "A Matter of Life and Death".
And at the same time you won't be bored by the acting either because it is first rate through out be it Raymond Massey as Harlan or Roger Livesey as Dr. Reeves. But it is the two central performances which are so good starting with Kim Hunter who in those early scenes as June, tearfully talking to Peter as he faces death wins you over, she is not only beautiful but restrains the emotion to deliver wonderful softness. And Hunter works well with David Niven who delivers not only the humorous British stiff upper lip as Peter but also the charm as he falls for June, yet also the humour of confusion when Conductor 71, a great performance from Marius Goring, shows up and wants to take him to heaven.
What this all boils down to is that "A Matter of Life and Death" is simply brilliant and a movie which no matter how hard anyone tries cannot be explained or done justice to with words alone. This maybe a movie which is over 60 years old but I suggest you watch it when it appears on TV as to fully understand why it is so loved, so clever and so imaginative you need to experience it.
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